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    Develop a New Habit? Give me 21 days, and I’ll give you… three weeks

    Even though I stopped buying self-help and spiritual books a long time ago, there seems to be no escape. Even non-spiritual and non-self-help books can’t seem to avoid repeating New Age nonsense.

    This morning I was reading a book about stretching for athletes. Pretty not-New Age-y, don’t you think? But, over and over, time and time again, repeatedly and redundantly, for page after page (have I made my point?), it kept harping on this idea:

    Commit to doing the stretches every day for 21 days, because science has proven that it takes 21 days to make a new habit.

    Grab almost any self-help book and you’ll hear the same mantra. I mean, it has to be true: “science has proven” it! And, it sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?

    Well, even though it sounds reasonable, that doesn’t mean it IS.

    If it sounds reasonable enough, though, you’ll take it at face value and ignore the decades of personal experience you have where you may have done something new every day for 21 days… and haven’t done it since. I promise that the only thing you will have gotten after three weeks of doing what you think will be a new habit, is the ability to make 21 X’s on your calendar.

    Some would argue, “Oh, but once you stopped for 21 days, then you made a NEW habit of not doing it!”

    Good try. But, first, if it’s a habit it’s a habit! It shouldn’t even be possible to stop! Second, there’s no way you made the same decision and commitment to STOP that you did to begin. “Okay, now that I’ve developed this habit of eating only foods that begin with the letter “P”, walking on my hands and quacking like a duck for 1.2 miles per day, and no longer trying to give pedicures to people on the subway… I now COMMIT to reverting to my mildly brain-damaged ways for the next 21 days!”

    Oh, and back to that “science has proven” nonsense. Science hasn’t proven this and, in fact, I’ll make a bet:

    If someone can give me a respected, published scientific study (that can’t be effortlessly debunked because of bad or no control groups, too small a sample size, or other obviously stupid study design) that demonstrates the proof of the 21-day habit building technology, I’ll give you $100!

    By the way, I know my money is completely safe in the same way that I knew it was safe when I made this bet about the “goal-setting study.”

    You’ve probably heard it (I heard it from hundreds of teachers): We know that writing down your goals makes them happen thanks to a “study” of the 1953 Yale graduating class where, 20 years later, 3% of the class was more successful than the other 97% COMBINED… and the only difference between the two groups is that the successful ones wrote down their goals.

    When I heard this “quoted” for the umpteenth time, I first just thought about it intelligently: Writing down goals was the ONLY DIFFERENCE? Yeah, right. Can you find me a group of more than, oh, THREE, where you can find only ONE DIFFERENCE between the people? And if you can, it ain’t “This one wrote down that he wanted to be the CEO of a major company and have his third heart attack by 45.”

    I also did the math… literally calculated the ways this could be true or not true… suffice it to say, the odds were just as good that the 1953 graduating class contained the son of the Sultan of Somewhere who, the day he matriculated, was already worth more than what the rest of the class would be worth combined, forever.

    One of the teachers who quoted the “goal setting study” was someone that I knew had an encyclopedic memory for things like this, so I asked him where he saw the study. He said, “Hmmm… I can’t remember.”

    That was the last straw. I knew it wasn’t true and I made a bet that nobody could show me the study. Nobody has. And, even better, Fast Company magazine debunked the whole thing.

    After you start questioning some of these “truisms,” you can start to hear the ring of nonsense, like hearing a bad note in a song. There’s a semi-indefinable flavor to the premise that sends up a red flag of BULLS&*T.

    I’ll let you debunk some of these popular “studies” (oh, I’ll chime in, no doubt 😉 )

    WARNING: For some of you, prepare to have your toes stepped on.

    • Fish are raised in a tank with a clear divider in the middle of the tank. Remove the divider and the fish never swim to the other side.
    • Fruit flies are raised in a jar with a clear plastic lid. Remove the lid and, as if they were fish, they never jump/fly higher than where the lid was.
    • Put a frog in warm water and slowly heat the water. The frog will not jump out… and you’ll have dinner prepared at the end of the experiment.
    • Take a glass of water from, oh, the Los Angeles harbor. Make some ice crystals of it, showing how horribly contaminated it is. Tape a piece of paper with the word LOVE written on it and, after some time, check out ONE ice crystal from the glass… and it has magically become BEAUTIFUL!
    • Professional basketball players who spent 20 days, for 20 minutes a day, VISUALIZING making free throws improved as much (or more!) than those who actually practiced for that same amount of time.
    • Quantum Physicists have PROVEN that you create reality by observing it (I’ll give you a hint here: the word “create” is used indiscriminately and inaccurately as a synonym for “observe one aspect of “… and, by the way, who “created” the observer?!)
    • Those same QP’s have PROVEN that we’re all connected and we’re all one. (I can’t help myself here; I’ve got to prime the pump: The “connected” idea is a bastardization of “strange action at a distance,” which is only observable under highly unusual conditions where, unlike reality, the things that are connected never interact with anything else. And the “we’re all one” is a confused version of the idea that an electron is, mathematically, just a probability wave that extends to infinity… but the probability that it’s HERE and not in the 3rd stall of the men’s room of the rest stop off Exit 12 of the Jersey Turnpike is, essentially ZERO… and multiply that once you add more than one electron until, really, things are where they are and nowhere else. Or maybe I got my “proofs” backwards… trust me, it doesn’t matter!)

    Got any others?

    4 Responses to “Develop a New Habit? Give me 21 days, and I’ll give you… three weeks”

    1. Stacy Says:

      The 21 day idea appears in “Psychocybernetics” by Maxwell Maltz. If I were on a real computer and not my phone I would track that down further. Maybe I will bop by a bookstore or library later.

    2. nobody Says:

      I second that the 21 days thing is a myth. That’s how I found this blog entry, while trying to track it down.

      About visualization, I don’t know if the visualizing basketball players were better, but visualization clearly does help. A review article summarizing the vast research on visualization in sports:

      It’s a fascinating read, perhaps you may enjoy it.

    3. sashen Says:

      Hey, nobody…

      Thanks for the pointer. The full article is interesting

      “Driskell et al. concluded that while mental practice had a moderate and significant impact on performance, this effect tended to be weaker on average than physical practice…

      “The smaller impact of mental practice on physical performance tasks was particularly determined by the extent to which the task had a high strength component, and to a lesser extent by the presence of a coordination component…

      “the longer someone mentally practices, the less beneficial it becomes…

      “mental practice gains are more due to the opportunity to practice the symbolic elements of a motor task than to muscle activation itself.”

      Now, keep in mind that the physical actions they’re talking about are: “highly overlearned or trivial aspects, such as writing down the results of arithmetic mentation.” In fact, the rest of the article talks almost entirely about cognitive aspects and certainly not about something like free throws, golf putting, or lawn darts.

    4. sashen Says:

      Oh, the complete article is at





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